Ring-a-round the rosie, a pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
The myth or story about this old nursery rhyme tells of it being popular with children during the “Black Death” that happened in Europe during the 14th century. The scene of children dancing around, their pockets full of flowers that were thought to ward off the plague, singing about ashes as bodies were being burned just outside of their village, all the makings of a good novel. Stories of life and death, of love gained and love lost, the quest to find that one safe place in the midst of this horrible disease. A child, watching a parent or sibling die in a most excruciating way, black bulbous growing, their bodies wracked with fever, their moans and finally the silence brought on by death. Death, a merciful end to the pain and suffering, the bodies stacked up like cords of wood to be taken to the funeral pyre, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, the end of a human life.
Ash Wednesday, that most uncomfortable day, a day of being reminded of our mortality, that death lingers out on the margins of our very being. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”, intoned as each forehead that comes forward is marked with ashes. The mark is not pretty, it doesn’t add to ones looks, but there it is, a black swath reminding all that see it that we are merely dust. I imagine the sound that is made as the ashes are applied, a long slow crunching as the priests thumb presses the ashes onto the head. The ashes are ground down into the grooves and pores, becoming one with the skin, bits and pieces of ash cascading down onto a nose, a mini avalanche of black, it’s not very neat or clean, then again, it is much like life.
The ashes are just a beginning for from the ashes we are raised into a new life. The day begins with a blackened forehead it ends with that mark wiped away, a clean slate. I for one know from experience that this one day will not make us pure and holy, but it is a day that will help us to grow. The ashes are the dark, rich humus in which we grow in love and faith.